There’s no question about it: Sony had its work cut out when it came time to improve the next generation of its e-readers. Amazon’s Kindle isn’t only the best selling electronic reading device out there, but its new $139 WiFi version is the fastest-selling yet. And then there’s the Barnes & Noble’s Nook, which is an equally capable competitor, especially with recent firmware updates. Oh, and don’t forget about the $140 Kobo. Yep, Sony had some serious work to do and its cheapest option – the $179.99 Pocket Edition — does differentiate in some striking ways. The aluminum reader has been upgraded with a new 5-inch E Ink Pearl display and now has an extremely responsive touchscreen for navigating through books / menus. The updates certainly have put Sony back into the final four, but there’s a few lacking features that just keep it from going all the way. You’ll want to hit the break to find out just what we’re talking about in our full review of this little guy.
Look and feel
The repeated first reaction to our brushed silver Pocket Edition over the last week? “It’s so cute!” Oh yes, the 5.7 x 4.1 x .33-inch reader is quite the cutie compared to the 7.5 x 4.8 x 0.33-inch Kindle and 7.7 x 4.9 x .05-inch Nook. Sure, its name is a bit misleading, and it won’t fit in a jeans pocket, but the 0.71-pound gadget is easily held in one hand and slides into a small purse / shoulder bag. We can’t say we’ve ever found the new 0.85-pound Kindle to be a strain on our own paws, but the Pocket Edition’s trimmer size and weight makes it even easier to hold while lying down or reclining in your La-Z-Boy.
After you get over the pettiness of the device, the impressive feel is the second thing you’ll notice. The aluminum clad reader feels incredibly solid, and its plastic edges seem to give it a bit of protection. Of course, if you’re the type that uses and abuses products, the Kindle’s plastic body will probably wear better over time – honestly, we’d worry if the Pocket Edition were to accidentally fall off a table onto a hard surface, we’d stay cool if it were the Kindle or the Nook. Ports-wise, Sony’s kept the Reader fairly bare – there’s a mini USB jack on the bottom edge, a power switch along the top and a stylus ejects from the right side. You have to step up to Sony’s Touch or Daily Editions to get the SD card, MemoryStick and 3.5mm headphone jacks.
Touchscreen and E Ink performance
Sony tells us that a touchscreen was the most requested feature from users when it came to the new Pocket. And Sony, being that attentive company that it is, did exactly what was asked. While there are still five physical buttons below the screen for turning pages, getting to the menu, etc., the screen has a new integrated optical / infrared technology that doesn’t distort the text like many complained about on the previous Touch Edition Reader. We didn’t have an old Touch to compare it to, but in comparison to the Kindle the text appeared just as crisp, though there was slightly more glare on the Pocket’s display.
As we said in our original hands-on, the touchscreen is very responsive; very light swipes on the smooth screen is all it takes to turn the page and a light tap on books is plenty to make selections. The stylus we mentioned before is obviously meant for taking notes within a book, or in our case, doodling in the Handwriting application. Pen input is also very responsive, but the E Ink causes there to be a slight delay between pen strokes and the actual inking.
There’s really no surprises when it comes to the performance of the 5-inch 800 x 600-resolution, 16-level gray scale E Ink Pearl display — it’s comparable to the what we’ve seen from other e-readers that sport E Ink’s latest. The page turns are faster than the previous generation (and the Nook), but in our side-by-side comparison with the new Kindle, Amazon’s solution was a hair faster to turn pages in most cases. In all honesty, the difference is really minimal, and not enough of a reason to pick one over the other. Still there’s a short flicker when you turn pages, and as expected, the display is quite crisp and readable indoors and out.
Book buying and reading experience
We should preface this entire section by saying we’re clearly used to the experience of buying books OTA on the Kindle or Nook and on their associated applications, so you can probably understand why we think the process of sideloading books seems so last decade. The Pocket doesn’t have WiFi or 3G, so yes, getting books onto the device requires you to get out the USB cord, download Sony’s Reader Library software for Mac or PC, and transfer books over through its iTunes-like interface. Is the process easy? Do you just click a book, download it and drag it to your device? Yes and yes, but we really wish we didn’t have to go through that at all. If you’re headed on vacation, you shouldn’t have an issue loading up tons of titles onto the 2GB e-reader, but what if you decide you want to buy a book you saw someone reading on the plane? You’ve got to get out the laptop… well, you get the point.
While we’re on the topic of Sony’s Reader Store, we feel compelled to do some slight comparison in terms of selection. Amazon claims it has over 700,000 e-books, newspapers and magazines in its Kindle Store. While Sony does have access to millions of books with Google Book integration, it only has 200,000 paid titles. Still, we had no problem finding some bestsellers including Sarah Silverman’s “The Bedwetter” and Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom: A Novel.” However, you could say Sony makes up for that selection with its “openness” / wider range of e-book formats, including ePub, PDF, BBeB Book, Text and RTF.
In terms of actually reading on the device, we genuinely have no complaints. Turning pages by swiping is a very enjoyable experience, and the main menu is exceedingly intuitive. Covers are displayed in the Books area and jumping to a page within a book is easy – you can use the toggle to move quickly through pages or input the page number with a soft number pad. Double tapping on a word reveals its definition, and you’ve got a choice of ten different language dictionaries. While there’s no physical keyboard to search a word, an on-screen keyboard pops up when you select search. Some may find the font on the smaller screen to be a bit frustrating, but you can also choose from six font sizes.
In terms of battery life, we can’t say we read enough in the last week to test the 10,000 page turns per charge claim, but our device is hovering around the 75 percent mark and we’ve had it powered on for at least a week and have used it to read a good chunk of “S*it My Dad Days.”
The way we see it there are two main reasons you’d buy the $179.99 e-reader over the Amazon Kindle or Barnes & Noble Nook: its incredibly responsive touchscreen navigation and extreme portability. However, if those don’t appeal to you or you really just prefer having a larger selection of e-books and the ability to buy books over the air via WiFi or 3G, it’s obvious that Amazon’s $139 Kindle with WiFi or its $189 3G version would be a better choice.